Title: Dog Day Afternoon
Source: Time Out magazine (UK), by Richard Rayner. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: New York, October 3-9, 1985
Key words: New York, Bacteria, Burma Shave, Frank's Wild Years (play), Francis Ford Coppola
Accompanying pictures
New York, 1985 or earlier. Photography by Adrian Boot. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
New York, 1985 or earlier. Photography by Adrian Boot. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
New York, 1985 or earlier. Photography by Adrian Boot. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan


Dog Day Afternoon


Tom Waits musical chronicler of sleazo American, pulls on his alligator shoes and takes a walk through the September heat wave to his local Lower West Side diner...

It's a September morning in New York. At 11 o'clock in Little Spain on the lower West Side, where Tom Waits lives with his family, the temperature is already high into the eighties. 'Summer in the city,' says Waits. 'People are like rats on a ship going down. Water's burnin'. It's hell.'

Light bounces off car windshields and the streets are beginning to boil. On the sidewalk outside a liquor store a deliveryman and two storeowners are working up a disagreement into an argument. If they can summon the energy it may yet turn into a fight.

'Confrontation, it's everywhere in this city. New York is overwhelming, thrilling, like being lost inside the guts of a TV set, you never find your way out.' He has lived here for about three years. He left Los Angeles when he was bitten by a snake which came out of the baththub plughole. 'Kinduva sweet, suburban snake. At least in New York the reptiles stay down in the sewers.' he says.

Tom Waits is one of the great songwriters of his generation, a lover of low-life, of dine and dance emporia, a hat collector and a compulsive purchaser of junk, a specialist in tawdry glamour, a chronicler of the sleaze and sadness and soul of life in the American underbelly. He currently draws his inspiration from the streets of New York where, everywhere you look, there are words and stories. 'Lotsa ideas for songs,' he says.

He dresses like one of his own characters. He wears a stained black jacket and a red and black button-down shirt which hangs out at the waist. He has a wispy goatee beard and an unruly shock of hair standing up vertically on his head. His feet are tucked onto mock alligator boots, winklepicker-pointed. His face looks not so much lived-in as worn-out and the bags under his eyes are the size of pool-table pockets. He looks like a cat run over. The voice, too, is familiar from the songs, a rasping groan dragged from somewhere around the soles of those alligator boots, passing over several cheese-graters on its route North.

'Rather than tell you what kind of stories I like, I'll tell you a story.' Waits says in his friendly growl. 'These two guys come out of a bar one night. They're not drunk, it goes without saying, and it's not much later than three in the morning. From down the street they hear someone singing. Opera. Now they're both opera fans - naturally - and one says to the other, "That's good. That's Puccini." And the other says, "No, it's better, it's Rossini." So they go closer and the singer's still going at it. It's a guy, and he's wearing a Stetson, and he's big, but not much bigger than a garbage truck, and he's singing at the top of his voice, like Maria Callas in "Figaro" or something "BACT-ER-I-A, BACT-EEEER-IA, BACT-EER-IA."' 'That is what I call a New York story(1)," says Waits.

The heat wins out and we retreat to an air-conditioned diner. Waits is restless, shifting uneasily on his seat. His waves and gestures are studiously ignored by the waitress. He says, 'I got pull here.' Waits has an impish, deadpan humour. This has to be kept in mind when weighing up what he chooses to reveal about himself. He was born in Los Angeles in 1949. That much everybody seems to have got straight. He says his mother gave birth to him in the back of a cab, a sky blue Oldsmobile. But then he also claims he was married in Las Vegas at one in the morning and his father was in attendance dressed only in his underwear. It's not that he is concerned to embellish his own, not inconsiderable, mythology; he is a shy and private man who can't resist a good story. He says, 'My father was Scots-Irish, a schoolteacher, teacher, a translator, a radio repair man, pretty much everything at different times. I was brought up in Los Angeles, El Paso, Missouri. We travelled around. I remember lullabies, my father singing "Molly Malone" and I remember hearing Mexican dance songs on the radio,' Waits starts banging a loud beat on the table and then he sings, in Spanish(2). It's a couple of minutes before he finishes. In the diner, no one bats an eye. 'I played the bugle at school(3). When the flag was raised in the morning and lowered in the afternoon. That happens every day at every school in America. Da-da-DA. I can still remember the smell of that bugle case. Bad eggs and a stale T-shirt.' He inherited a broken-down piano which was given free of charge to his father and he taught himself to play. By the age of 15 he was in a soul band at junior high school. 'I liked Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, T-Rex, the predictable stuff.'

Waits was 23 when his first album, 'Closing Time', was released. In the ten years following he proved himself one of the most individual, eclectic and least predictable of American performers. He toured constantly (the excellent 'Nighthawks at the Diner' is testament to Waits's power as a live act) and based himself for several years at the run-down Tropicana Motor Hotel(4) in West LA. His music took strands from folk, jazz, country and blues then pulled them together behind narratives which explored an America populated by transients, drunks and whores. It was the America of Kerouac, Bukowski and Chandler brought up to date. The Style of many of the songs - 'Ol' 55', 'The Heart of a Saturday Night', 'Jersey Girl' - was lush and heart-rending. Waits shaped the stuff of everyday life into beautiful myth.

Take 'Burma Shave'. Waits explains: 'Burma Shave is an American shaving-cream company, like Colgate. They advertise on the side of the road and they have these limericks which are broken up into different signs like pieces of a fortune cookie. You drive for miles before you get the full message. "PLEASE DON'T"... five miles... "STICK YOUR ARM OUT SO FAR"... another five miles... "IT MIGHT GO HOME"... five more miles... "IN ANOTHER MAN'S CAR - BURMA SHAVE." They reel you in. So when I was a kid I'd see these signs on the side of the road - BURMA SHAVE, BURMA SHAVE - and I'm young and I think it's the name of a town and I ask my dad, "When we getting to Burma Shave?" So in the song I used Burma Shave as a dream, a mythical community, a place two people are trying to get to. They don't make it.'

Over the years Waits's style became grittier and grittier until, with 'Swordfishtrombones' in 1983, it evolved into something else altogether. There were ballads in the grand Waits tradition (notably 'Soldier's Things', covered by Paul Young(5)) but the overall mood was different - oriental, fractured and dark. The songs explored familiar Waits scenarios but the sound was a 'junkyard orchestral deviation', consisting of marimbas, accordians, tubas and trombones as well as guitar, sax and piano. His new record 'Rain Dogs' is an extension of this - in places, 'Midtown' and '9th & Hennepin', it could be the soundtrack for a particularly mean mean-streets thriller.

Waits says, 'I make notes, write some things down. But you never know how it's all going to fit in until you finally sit down and say, now I'm writing, now I'm working, now I'm gonna make sense of all this pandemonium. It's like anything else. It's the relationship between things where the meaning lies, that's what you try to look at. New York has made a difference but "Swordfish" and "Rain Dogs" are not really a switch, more a combination of imported an domestic influences, I guess. An attempt to do something more private, demented, exotic. Like a Cuban nightmare.'

His latest project is a musical(6), opening in Chicago later this year. It's based on 'Frank's Wild Years', one of the stand-out songs on 'Swordfishtrombones'. The original story is typical of Waits's black humour. It concerns one Frank Leroux(7) who lives in LA's San Fernando Valley with his wife and a blind Chihuahua named Carlos. One night Frank douses the house with petrol and torches it. He parks across the street, 'laughing, watching it burn, all Halloween orange and chimney red,' then he heads North on the Hollywood Freeway. And all because he couldn't stand the dog. The musical, which will star Waits himself, follows Frank to Las Vegas, that surreal cathedral of neon which rises out of the middle of the Nevada desert. Waits confesses himself fascinated by it. 'That is the only place where I've ever seen false teeth in a pawn shop window. And prosthetic devices. I've seen a guy sell his glass eye for just one more roll. And it's in the middle of nowhere, a graveyard for performers, like a parody of the American dream. All very confused. You can be a shoe-shine boy in the morning, a millionaire by noon. More often it works the other way. It's insane.'

Waits, of course, has already been involved with another recent fantasy about the place, Coppola's 'One From The Heart'. he spent 18 months writing the music. Coppola subsequently encouraged Waits to act, giving him roles in both 'Rumblefish' and 'The Cotton Club'.

'I don't think there's anyone quite like Francis [Coppola]. He is a con-man and a carney and a little dictator and an exotic bird, a schoolteacher, ballerina, pimp, a clown and a buffoon and a president and a trash collector. He fills up a room. And he makes good spaghetti. He listens to opera(8), he eats well, he dreams up ideas and he brings you into the fray. Very Italian, Francis Ford Mussolini. I love him dearly. Now Waits's alternative career is firmly established. Since the movies and movie mythology take an important place in his music, it seems appropriate. Starring roles are lined up for next year in photographer Robert Frank's first feature(9) and in 'Down By Law', Jim Jarmusch's follow up to 'Stranger than Paradise'. 'Down by Law' is a jail-break movie, featuring three characters. 'A gangster, a homosexual and an unjustly accused Italian baker,' says Waits as we are leaving the diner. 'Confidentially, I play all three roles.'

Outside, the streets are fizzing. Sirens blare and a cop has taken two black kids aside and is waggling a night stick threateningly under their noses. Presumably, he's advising them of the time. Waits keeps ducking into the five and dime stores which line W 14th Street, trying on hats, checking out the price of radios and clockwork toys. In between he stands patiently on the sidewalk, posing for the photo session. Now and then a stranger will recognise him and shout a greeting. For years he was a cult figure, admired by his peers (Keith Richards appears on 'Rain Dogs', Springsteen performed 'Jersey Girl') but with only a small following. Now his career is spinning off in many different directions and his fame is growing. That process looks set to continue, though stardom is not what Waits is after. He says, 'I would feel like a success if I walked by a schoolyard and I heard kids going around a jump rope with one of my songs and they'd changed the words. 'Cos the real test of a song is if it can be a song for all seasons, in lots of different circumstances. I heard "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" a coupla days back. This woman, this bald woman, wearing nothing but a blanket, on the D-train, smoking a cigar, with a bottle of sour mash and a New York Post. She was singing: "Raindrops. ya fuckin' mother. keep falling on my head. ya little cunt, ya pig. but that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be. what the fuck, ya fucker." And then she just went out. Boom. I never liked that Bacharach tune before but now it's become a song for me. I'd never heard it handled in quite that way.' 'It's great when a song gets absorbed like that. 'Cos that's where you want to end up. To be part of the fabric, part of the life that goes on around you, with your songs. That's better than getting played on the radio. That's what I'd like.'

And there is, he admits, one other thing he'd like.
'More alligator shoes.'
Alligator shoes?
Alligator shoes. Waits has been known to haul drinking companions back to his apartment to admire his collection. Throughout the photo-session he is worried that, somehow, the fine London-bought pair he is currently modeling might not feature in the snaps. And so the big question: how many pairs of alligator shoes does Tom Waits possess? 'Not,' he says with a sly glance downwards, 'as many as I'd like.'

'Rain Dogs' is released on Island Records. Tom Waits plays the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road, October 16-24. See Music: Rock, Folk & Jazz - Booking.


(1) That is what I call a New York story: Waits would use this Bacteria-story 15 years later for the Woyzeck play ("God's Away On Business", as published in the Woyzeck songbook (Betty Nansen Teatret, 2000). Written by: Tom Waits/ Kathleen Brennan Published by: Jalma Publishing (ASCAP), � 2000)

(2) And then he sings, in Spanish: Waits is known to speak Spanish. Also have a look at: TomasTomas (Thomas Saywer)

(3) I played the bugle at school: One might think Waits is joking here, but he probably did play the bugle. There's an early picture of Waits from the cover of "Music World" magazine. June, 1973.

(4) At the run-down Tropicana Motor Hotel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.

(5) 'Soldier's Things', covered by Paul Young: "The Secret of Association". Paul Young. 1985 Sony Music

(6) His latest project is a musical: 17-22 June, 1986. World premiere and theatrical debut. Three month run as Frank in the play: "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre. Further reading: Franks Wild Years

(7) Frank Leroux: This fictional character gave rise to the theatre production: "Frank's Wild Years". For this production Frank was renamed Frank O'Brien, in stead of Frank Leroux. Waits' father's first name was Frank. Frank's Wild years Theatre book: (as published on Tom Waits Miscellania): "Frank O'Brien: What can you say about Frank that hasn't already been written? Quite a guy. Grew up in a BIRD'S EYE frozen, oven-ready, rural American town where Bing, Bob, Dean, Wayne & Jerry are considered major constellations. Frank, mistakenly, thinks he can stuff himself into their shortsand present himself to an adoring world. He is a combination of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, PLAYING ACCORDIAN -- but without the wisdom they possessed. (He'll get his). He has a poet's heart and a boy's sense of wonder with the world. A legend in Rainville since he burned his house down and took off for the Big Time."

(8) He listens to opera: It might have been Coppola (or at least his kitchen jukebox) who introduced Waits to some serious Italian opera:
- Tom Waits (1999): "I heard "Nessun Dorma" in the kitchen at Coppolas with Raul Julia one night, and it changed my life, that particular Aria. I had never heard it. He asked me if I had ever heard it, and I said no, and he was like, as if I said I've never had spaghetti and meatballs-`Oh My God, O My God!' and he grabbed me and he brought me to the jukebox (there was a jukebox in the kitchen) and he put that on and he just kind of left me there. It was like giving a cigar to a 5 year old. I turned blue, and I cried." (Tom Waits, Artist Choice/ HearMusic: October, 1999)

(9) Robert Frank's first feature: Candy Mountain (1987). Movie directed by Robert Frank. Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Also features Jim Jarmusch. Tom Waits as actor, composer, musical performer. Plays rich guy Al Silk. Performs: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" & "Once More Before I Go". Further reading: Filmography